Each day over the 2 1/2 weeks leading up to the 2019 IHSA football season, the News-Gazette will be previewing all 37 teams in its coverage area.
The chase to unseat Milford/Cissna Park as the Illinois 8-Man Football Association’s top dog began in earnest Monday, with IHSA member schools’ preseason practices kicking off.
In the 8-Man Association’s second season, 16 programs will vie for its state championship — up from six last year. Three of those squads are local teams.
Milford/Cissna Park is joined by Judah Christian and Schlarman. The former is in its second-ever football campaign, while the latter is restarting its program after spending the previous five seasons in a cooperative.
Though the Tribe was a founding member of the 8-Man Association, it’ll now be under the direction of Ted Myhre after Nate Albaugh resigned in the offseason.
“There’s always opportunities to learn and grow, and being a first-year head coach, that’s coming quite fast and rapid,” said Myhre, who possessed no previous football leadership experience. “We’ve tried to build a coaching staff that’s larger (five members) so we can have this big tapestry of coaching — everybody brings their own thread in.”
Among that group is Jack Leclair, who on Monday was putting his athletes through grueling ladder drills at the Field of Dreams in southwest Champaign.
It’s part of Myhre’s mission to capitalize on Judah’s collective speed, which he feels should be a strength.
Senior Kyle Stone believes the Tribe having one 8-man season under its belt — even if it resulted in a 1-6 record — also should aid the 2019 outfit.
“It puts a little more pressure on us because we were one of the first ones (in the league),” Stone said. “We need to come out strong and better and show what we can do.”
Fellow senior Joe Myhre added that earlier knowledge of key strategical differences between 8-man and 11-man football also should give Judah a leg up on the competition.
“Eight-man is really about just knowing your reads and then definitely letting your guys get open and hitting them for those long passes,” Joe Myhre said. “We can definitely carry that over from last year.”
Meanwhile, Schlarman is in a bit of a different boat after breaking away from a co-op with Hoopeston Area and Armstrong-Potomac this past March.
New coach Matt Blurton retains six youngsters who suited up for the co-op, but also added even more athletes who are new to the game.
“We’re kind of at a luxury being so many guys that haven’t played football before, they don’t have any bad habits,” Blurton said. “Everything we’re teaching them’s new stuff, and it’s been an easy transition because of it.”
Also making things easy for Blurton and his staff: the mindset their pupils have adopted.
“I love the eagerness to learn,” he said. “There’s not a lazy kid on this team. They always work their tails off and do everything we ask them to do.”
Seniors Marcus Blurton and Vaughn Black both saw snaps with HASAAP last year.
While they were happy with that situation, each said there’s something different about wearing the Schlarman brand on their jerseys, and trying to follow in the footsteps of the Hilltoppers’ 1980 and 1981 state champions.
“It’s exciting to play up on the hill and have Schlarman football back,” Marcus Blurton said. “I watched it growing up as a kid, and it’s exciting to be back for the first year of it back.”
“It means a lot to the community and the school,” Black added. “It’s better for the players, too, because we had to travel all the way up to Hoopeston for practice and everything, and we’ve got more people that wanted to play here instead. ... It’s great.”